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Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Superconductor Interview: Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz

The founders of the New York International Piano Competition.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz (left).
Photo from the Stecher Horowitz Foundation.
Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz know a good pianist when they hear one.

New York-based and partners in pianism for over six decades, (they met at the age of 17) they are the creators of the New York International Piano Competition, which starts June 23 at the Manhattan School of Music. In a telephone interview with Superconductor these two pianists (now 81) discussed their piano competition with energy and eagerness, occasionally interlocuting for each other with the ease of long musical partnership.

The competition, which is now in its fourteenth year, started because one of the pianists got sick when they were on tour. Mr. Horowitz explains: "We were in South America in 1959, under the auspeices of President Eisenhower. "It was a 12 week tour and I got sick and we had to cancel. So we had to figure out what would happen if we couldn't tour."

Eventually the duo, who have played onstage together since the age of 19, found a piece of property in Cedarhurst Long Island and  opened The Stecher and Horowitz School for the Arts. It operated there for 39 years. When the school closed, the pair started the Stecher Horowitz Foundation which now sponsors the competition.

The process leading up to the contest takes two years, with panelists hearing hundreds of audition DVDs.

"There are 5 people who do the screening," Mr. Stecher explains. "Our screening takes ten weeks. They send in a 20-25 minute DVD of their performance. We listen to it carefully,not only one time but two or three times. "

Each competitor submitting a DVD plays a Bach Prelude and Fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier., the work that serves as the foundation for modern keyboard technique. They send in the first movement of a sonata: usually Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven, and one major work from a Romantic: usually Chopin, Schumann or Liszt.

"We have a big pool to choose from," Mr. Stecher says. "We don't feel you can judge if someone sends in a big Prokofiev sonata or a work by Scriabin."

At the Manhattan School of Music, a panel of judges will hear twenty-two pianists drawn from a pool of 132 pianists.

Unlike most piano competitions, the NYIPC avoids the elimination process. Each pianist selected to compete plays all four rounds of the competition. A sophisticated computerized scoring system tabulates the scores submitted by the judges, and the winner is chosen based on the average of all four rounds.

In addition to the compulsory classics, competitors in this contest are also required to learn and play a piece by a contemporary composer. This year, the work is Notturno nosquena by Gabriella Lena Frank, the Peru-born modernist whose work is sometimes phantasmagorical and occasionally terrifying.

"The music is sent to the contestants about ten or eleven weeks in advance of the competition. They work at it or have to memorize it. The best part is that the composer is there--they have the opportunity of hearing their work twenty-two times."

"It's not just bravura technique," Mr. Stecher says. "There has to be an ability to communicate. To understand what the composer's intentions are."

"You look for the soul of the pianist," Mr. Horowitz adds. "Bach should sound like Bach. Chopin should still sound like Chopin--what's on the printed page. You can see it in the first thirty seconds: it comes through."

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.